But as France locks down in preparation for a possible fourth weekend of violent protests, the movement of “gilet jaunes,” named after the yellow high-visibility jackets French motorists must carry in their vehicles, has morphed into a movement of many colors, with extremist groups jumping on the bandwagon.
The demands have also expanded, with even students taking part, calling for changes to the French high school examinations and university entrance procedures.
Also among the protesters are anarchists, elements of the anti-immigration populists and hard-core fascists. There are even groups on social media claiming to be environmental “yellow jackets,” a direct contradiction of the original protesters’ demands to scrap a new eco-tax.
Much of the organizing for the protests has taken place on Facebook. According to the social media company’s own figures, 67% of French people use Facebook, with 22 million people logging on every day.
The protests have been coordinated through groups called “groupes coleres,” or “angry groups” that have amassed hundreds of thousands of members over the course of this year.
The biggest Facebook group is the “Compteur Officiel de Gilets Jaunes” or official yellow jacket count, which boasts 1.7 million members. Another group is the “Carte des Rassemblements” which means rally or demonstration map, with 300,000 members. A more sinister-sounding group “Angry Patriots” has 53,000 members.
The original “yellow vest” was the motor mechanic Ghilsain Coutard, 36, from Narbonne in southern France. Nicknamed “vestman” on social media, a video he produced encouraging people to show their opposition to the tax by wearing a yellow jacket quickly went viral, with 5.4 million views.
Another social media “gilet jaune” popular with the media is Jacline Mouraud, 51, a hypnotherapist and accordion player from Brittany.
But what began as coordinated road blocks to protest the fuel tax hike has since mushroomed into a broader demonstration of anger against French President Emmanuel Macron.
Macron conceded this week to their initial call to scrap the fuel tax. But, depending on which kind of yellow vest you talk to, demands are escalating, ranging from a complete overhaul of the high-income tax and the long-established minimum wage, as well as the reinstatement of a tax on French financial investments, or ISF.
“We didn’t get rid of the ISF, we transformed it,” government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux told French radio RTL Wednesday. “We maintained the tax on real estate. Where did we remove it? On stocks, because we had had enough of people who earned a lot of money investing in foreign funds. It does not make sense, it does not come back in the real economy. It was not a gift to the rich.”
Political extremists hijack protests
Anti-Macron sentiment, which has grown since last year’s presidential election, is a driving force behind the yellow jacket movement.
Maxime Nicolle, another yellow vest activist, told CNN: “I’m definitely not backing down now. The moratorium is useless. The people want a referendum, a referendum on Macron, the senate and the national assembly.”
The concern now, and the reason for the strong police mobilization Saturday, is the hijacking of the “angry groups” by violent political extremists.
The anti-immigration sentiment among many has not been lost on Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally Party who lost the presidential election to Macron.
She has been campaigning among transport workers in France and is now linking the yellow jackets movement to France’s planned signature Monday in Morocco of a UN pact to improve the rights of migrants.
Eric Drouet, yellow vest social media activist told CNN affiliate BFMTV on Wednesday: “Saturday will be the final goal. Saturday it’s the Elysée (presidential residence). We would all like to go to the Elysée. It will really be Saturday. We are all united to the end and we move on the direction of l’Elysée.”
However, in a Facebook video published later, Drouet damped down the angry tone. “I ask people to come out to demonstrate, not to smash things up,” he said in the video. “I want to go to the Elysée not to break it, but so we get listened to.”
CNN’s Saskya Vandoorne contributed to this report.